Consider the mayfly. Don’t worry, it won’t bite. It can’t. Mayflies, you see, live such a short time that they are born without mouths – indeed, without digestive systems of any kind. They hatch, they mate, and then they die, all in a single day (although the larval stage of the mayfly – called a nymph – lives much longer). Seen from one perspective, that’s a tragic fate, a cruel joke of an existence. Seen another way, however, mayflies are an example of two seemingly contradictory forces of nature held in balance and tension: the incredible, explosive variety of organic life, and life’s fleeting and impermanent nature. Generation upon generation of mayfly have repeated a simple DNA loop over and over until it has been worn smooth, adapted perfectly to its environment but also fragile: a flame of incredible beauty flaring to life in the darkness, only to be snuffed out once more.
I first learned about the brief life of the mouthless mayfly from my father when I was a kid. I grew up fishing and camping in Utah, where the flies’ frantic cycle of life and death provide a banquet for hungry trout. Call it an early lesson in the complex balance of nature or an early meditation on mortality – either way, I thought about the mayfly one day a long time ago on my way to see the cadaver lab at the University of Utah’s medical school. I was taking Health Occupations in high school at the time, and we’d finished our units on anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology. We’d also watched and discussed a video of an autopsy. All that was left to do in that unit was take a class trip to the morgue.
Those who call the human body a temple are onto something. The bodies that our class saw dissected for anatomical demonstration that day were like little cathedrals. All of their secret buttresses, their myriad internal stained-glass shades of white, yellow, red, and purple were open to us. The air was seasoned like a high Mass – though with the tang of formaldehyde-enriched meat rather than the spice of incense. It was an experience that I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to call sacred, a contemplation of the mayfly nature of human life, of our perfectly evolved, perfectly fragile forms. Nature is Satan’s cathedral; by which I mean that the sacred is literally embodied in all of us, in our fleeting flesh. Each of us is a self-aware conversation between chemicals and lightning, brief and brilliant and then returned home to the darkness from which we are born.
Horror lives in that sacred space. Good horror looks into darkness not out of prurience, but because the dark lives inside of all of us. It is a warm and fertile darkness, and when we tap into it we forge a connection with everything else that lives – and dies – in this explosion of chaotic energy that we temporarily inhabit. Horror invites us to contemplate our mayfly nature, and thus to embrace a radical empathy with our fellow lifeforms. It also allows us to look our own mortality squarely in its grinning, bony face, and thus live our lives with joy, mindfulness, and authenticity. Horror is a teacher.
That day in the autopsy room, I learned a great deal from the dead – specifically, the men and women who had the generosity to donate their bodies to the medical school my class visited. Each of us is sole possessor of our bodies. They belong to nobody other than us. To surrender one’s flesh, which is the source of selfhood, is the ultimate donation one can make to scientific progress and education. And knowledge, after all, is the greatest gift.
I believe in paying things forward. Not because I think the world is just, or because I subscribe to the ideas of karma or divine retribution. I believe it because it is, ethically speaking, the right course. In that spirit, I’ve joined the ranks of those who have filled out a certificate of bequeathal with the University of Utah’s Medical School. I live quite close to campus these days, and when my merry mayfly moment is finished and my biomass no longer able to project consciousness into the world, they will come collect me. Then the next chapter will begin; one in which I am again a cathedral of nature, one who is dead but still capable of imparting wisdom, still a link in the great chain of human intellect. That seems like enough to me. That seems, in fact, beautiful.